Was Lewis Carroll A Pedophile?

CULTURE | October 9, 2019

English mathematician, writer and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898) with Mrs George Macdonald and four children relaxing in a garden. Source: (Photo by Lewis Carroll/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Many people recognize the name Lewis Carroll as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Some people may also know Lewis Carroll was actually a pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who in addition to being an author was a mathematician and photographer. What most of them don’t know is these famous works were inspired by a real girl named Alice and Dodgson’s relationship with her, as well as other young girls, have led many academics to label him a pedophile.

Dodgson was born on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, Chesire, England to Charles and Frances Dodgson. The couple had eleven children, of which Dodgson was the third and the eldest son. Having so many younger siblings may be one of the reasons he became so adept at entertaining children. In fact, he was known to entertain his siblings by telling them stories and making up games to play with them. He attended Rugby School from 1846 to 1850 but was unhappy due to being introverted and was often subjected to bullying. He was also often sick and one illness left him deaf in one ear. He went on to attend the College of Christ Church at Oxford, where he received a studentship, gained an appointment as a mathematics lecturer, and lived until his death in 1898.

Christ Church College at Oxford University. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

As per the rules of his studentship, Dodgson remained unmarried and was ordained a deacon in 1861. With no children of his own, he became an honorary uncle to his friends’ children, often telling them stories or taking them on short trips. Dodgson was known to have a stutter and it is believed this led to him feeling more comfortable conversing with children rather than adults. In 1855, Henry and Lorina Liddell arrived at Christ Church along with their children, Harry, Lorina (Ina), Alice, and Edith. Dodgson became friends with nine-year-old Harry first, but it was Alice who would inspire his most famous writing.  

Illustration of Alice in Alice Adventures in Wonderland. Source: (Wikipedia)

It was on July 4, 1862. Dodgson, along with his friend and colleague, Robinson Duckworth, took the Liddell sisters boating on the river. As he often did, Dodgson entertained the girls by telling them a story. He named the main character after the ten-year-old Alice Liddell. Alice loved the story so much she begged Dodgson to commit it to writing. He did as she asked, added a few other tales, and gave it to her. Later, novelist Henry Kingsley was visiting the Liddells and happened to pick the book up and read it. He was so impressed he asked Mrs. Liddell to convince Dodgson to publish it. In 1865, after several revisions, it was published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He later followed it with two sequels, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, both published in 1871.

One of Dodgson’s photos of Alice Liddell. Source: (sheknows.com)

While Dodgson’s close friendships with Alice and the other children may seem strange by today’s standards, this was not the case in the Victorian era. He even entertained the grandchildren of Queen Victoria. In every case, the parents approved of the association. It was also with their permission, and in some cases at their request, that Dodgson began photographing the children. The camera was new technology at the time, but Dodgson was quick to take up photography as a hobby. He took over 3,000 photographs in his lifetime and over half were of children with thirty of those being nude or semi-nude. While today such photos would be considered child pornography, they were considered art by Victorian standards. Children were not looked on as sexual beings, but rather like pictures of innocence and it was not uncommon for nude children to be depicted on postcards and birthday cards.

The Liddell sisters. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1863, Dodgson’s association with the Liddells ended temporarily and without explanation and, while they began socializing again after a few months, he never took the daughters out again. However, Dodgson’s reputation as a “child-loving saint” persisted long after his death on January 14, 1898, from pneumonia. In fact, it wasn’t until 1933, when a writer named A.M.E. Goldschmidt suggested in an essay titled “Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analyzed” that Dodgson may have had impure thoughts toward Alice Liddell, that Dodgson’s relationship came under scrutiny. Goldschmidt, however, was not a psychoanalyst and many scholars believe he was jumping on the Freudian bandwagon of the 1930s.

Once the idea was out there, it wasn’t going away. Later authors theorized the children were a substitute for marriage while others latched onto rumors he intended to marry Alice. This was supported by an interview between biographer Florence Becker Lennon and Alice’s older sister, Ina. However, Ina later wrote a letter to her sister in which she confessed to falsifying details during the interview. One theory is that it was actually Ina, who at fourteen would have been considered marriageable, who was the recipient of Dodgson’s intentions.

Illustration of the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Source: (YouTube)

Further incriminating evidence against Dodgson is the fact that one of his ancestors evidently cut pages out of his diaries, including the ones which would have covered his break with the Liddells. However, one of his nieces summarized the content of these pages and, according to her, it was not inappropriate behavior on Dodgson’s part, but rather the rumor mill claiming he was pursuing the children’s nanny or Ina, which put an end to their outings.

In any case, all the scholars who paint Dodgson as a pedophile completely ignore the letters he wrote to a number of adult women with whom he sought a closer relationship. While these letters don’t clear him of pedophilia, they do show that he did not lack adult companionship. In the end, there is no way to prove whether or not he had impure feelings toward the children he befriended, but it is likely only the corruption of today’s society making an innocent friendship appear perverse.

Tags: Lewis Carroll

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